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Ranking the top five rookie classes of the 2023 NFL season: Lions edge out Texans for the No. 1 spot

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights five instant-impact groups that have shaped the past four months of football ...

With the 2023 NFL regular season nearly in the books, it's a great time to assess Year 1 returns from the 2023 NFL Draft.

While most team-builders prefer a draft-and-develop approach that cultivates stability and consistency on an annual basis, it's not easy to correctly identify prospect talent and adequately train newbies for prominent roles. So, the executives, scouts and coaches who do pull this off deserve acclaim, especially when the fresh roster additions immediately help fuel a playoff push. With that in mind ...

Here is my ranking of the top five rookie classes in the '23 campaign.

Detroit Lions

It is not a coincidence the Lions have become legitimate title contenders, given the influx of talent under third-year general manager Brad Holmes' watch, with young playmakers excelling as key contributors on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Round 1, No. 12 overall) and tight end Sam LaPorta (Round 2, No. 34) have flourished as designated playmakers in a lineup loaded with splash-play artists. Though Detroit's veterans typically lead the charge (SEE: QB Jared Goff, RB David Montgomery and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, not to mention a fabulous offensive line), the team's rookies have added pizzazz to the unit with their dynamic abilities. Whether via Gibbs squirting through holes on off-tackle runs or LaPorta snagging passes between the hashes, the Lions have upgraded their offense with first-year contributors manning key roles. 

Defensively, Detroit has closed the gap on its competitors with linebacker Jack Campbell (Round 1, No. 18) and defensive back Brian Branch (Round 2, No. 45) in the starting lineup. Branch, in particular, has shined as the Lions' nickel corner, exhibiting outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills while playing in the slot. With the 22-year-old Alabama product playing well beyond his years, the Lions have been able to thrive utilizing "eyes" coverage tactics to create more turnovers.

With Detroit getting impact production from rookies on each side of the ball, Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell deserve credit for an effective draft-and-develop strategy that has keyed the rise of a long-suffering franchise.

Houston Texans

After winning just 11 games combined over the past three seasons, Houston heads into Saturday night's regular-season finale at Indianapolis with a chance to punch a playoff ticket -- and potentially win the AFC South. This is thanks, in large part, to the spectacular performance of the 2023 rookie class. While the Texans raised some eyebrows with their aggressive approach on the opening night of last April's draft -- taking quarterback C.J. Stroud with the second overall pick and then trading up to select edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. at No. 3 -- DeMeco Ryans and Nick Caserio look like geniuses now, with their prized picks exceeding all expectations as immediate franchise cornerstones. 

Honestly, Stroud has played like a top-five quarterback for most of his rookie season, displaying exceptional poise, arm talent and pocket awareness. He set the NFL record for most pass attempts without an interception to start a career (192) and then claimed the rookie record for most passing yards in a game (470) during a five-touchdown master class in Houston's comeback win over Tampa Bay. Considering Stroud did much of his work with rookie WR Tank Dell (Round 3, No. 69) positioned as the team's big-play specialist, the Texans' aerial attack has an exceedingly bright future. Dell just needs to work his way back from the broken leg that prematurely ended his season in December.

On defense, Anderson has made all of the nitpicking of his game in the pre-draft process look comical, thriving as a designated playmaker off the edge. Piling up seven sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hits in 14 games, Anderson has exhibited outstanding first-step quickness. As offensive tackles struggle to deal with his burst, the rookie has also developed a series of hand-to-hand combat counters that result in big hits on the quarterback. With linebacker Henry To'oto'o (Round 5, No. 167) showing promise as a tackling machine (61 total tackles and a forced fumble in 13 games), the Texans have a young group of playmakers on each side of the ball to build around as aspiring contenders.

Green Bay Packers

Green Bay's playoff contention in Jordan Love's first season as the full-time starter has been significantly fueled by a young collection of playmakers growing up quickly between the lines.

The Packers' pass catchers, in particular, have dazzled as big-play specialists. Jayden Reed (Round 2, No. 50), Dontayvion Wicks (Round 5, No. 159), Malik Heath (undrafted), Luke Musgrave (Round 2, No. 42) and Tucker Kraft (Round 3, No. 78) have taken turns snagging passes from a QB1 committed to playing the game like a pass-first point guard willing to hit the open man. Though the Packers lack a 1,000-yard receiver, the balanced distribution has made the offense more challenging to defend, with the rookies occupying interchangeable roles on the perimeter. As Love develops chemistry with his young weapons, Green Bay's aerial attack shows promise as an explosive outfit. 

Defensively, Lukas Van Ness (Round 1, No. 13) made his mark as a situational pass rusher in the rotation. Registering three sacks and nine quarterback hits in a part-time role, Van Ness' positive production suggests he could develop into an impact player with more snaps. With unheralded draftees like DL Colby Wooden (Round 4, No. 116), DL Karl Brooks (Round 6, No. 179), CB Carrington Valentine (Round 7, No. 232) and S Anthony Johnson Jr. (Round 7, No. 242) pitching in as part-time starters/key reserves, the Packers' developmental plan has keyed a surprising resurgence that has the team on the verge of a postseason berth.

Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay deserves credit for the best coaching job of his career: transforming a group of newbies, misfits and weathered veterans into a playoff squad. The one-time Super Bowl champion quickly whipped the roster into shape utilizing a sink-or-swim approach that encourages coaches to put young players on the field early. 

Puka Nacua (Round 5, No. 177) is the face of the class as a record-breaking pass catcher with a polished game. He announced his presence during Cooper Kupp's four-game absence to start the season, racking up 9.8 catches and 125.3 yards per game in that span. Since then, Nacua has blossomed into a co-WR1, sharing the marquee with Kupp as the Rams' go-to guy on the perimeter. While some have attempted to cast the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder as a "system player," he is a versatile playmaker with the IQ and skills to fill various roles in the Rams' scheme. With the rookie racking up 1,445 receiving yards in his first 16 NFL games, it is hard to dispute his impact or production as a No. 1 option in the passing game. 

Left guard Steve Avila (Round 2, No. 36) has yet to garner nearly as much attention as his classmate, but the TCU product has been a key contributor as a full-time starter. He's a rock-solid player with a knack for controlling the point of attack as a run blocker and pass protector. The rookie's consistency has helped key the Rams' resurgence as a dynamic offense. 

On defense, Byron Young (Round 3, No. 77) and Kobie Turner (Round 3, No. 89) have bolstered a pass rush that rarely harassed quarterbacks in 2022. Last season, only one player (Leonard Floyd, who is no longer with the team) logged more than six sacks or 11 QB hits. This season, Young and Turner have already surpassed both marks, combining for 16 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 33 quarterback hits in 16 games. The constant harassment and disruption from the first-year tandem has enabled the Rams to create a diverse pass-rush plan that makes quarterbacks uncomfortable with inside-outside pressures from multiple defenders at the point of attack.

2023 marked the seventh straight draft in which the Rams did not make a first-round pick, thanks to a series of trades for veteran talent over the years. For a team tasked with rebuilding a title contender under such circumstances, the success of the 2023 class should give Los Angeles a solid foundation for the future. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh's developmental approach has resulted in 17 straight non-losing seasons under Mike Tomlin. The 2023 campaign has showcased the plan's brilliance as the Steelers have mounted a playoff push behind the efforts of a rookie class that features a handful of blue-chip players with Super Bowl-caliber pedigrees. 

Right tackle Broderick Jones (Round 1, No. 14) and blocking tight end Darnell Washington (Round 3, No. 93) added much-needed physicality and toughness to a front line that wants to play "bully ball" at the point of attack. The supersized road graders specialize in violently knocking defenders off the ball. Though the Steelers' offensive struggles have overshadowed the duo's individual and collective efforts, Jones and Washington's nastiness reflects the tenacity Tomlin demands from his units at the line of scrimmage. 

Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (Round 2, No. 32) and defensive tackle Keeanu Benton (Round 2, No. 49) have sparked the defense as key contributors on a suffocating unit that carried the team to wins despite the offense's issues. Porter has flashed CB1 traits as a tenacious bump-and-run defender willing to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage. Benton's strength, power and energy have solidified the defensive interior while giving Pittsburgh a long-term solution at a pivotal position.

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